Motoring: You'll never guess the price: James Ruppert finds there's never been a better time to buy a second-hand Porsche 944, while Roger Bell tests the 968, its cheaper replacement

As a symbol of the profligate Eighties, a Porsche is right up there with Aportable phones, Filofaxes and red braces. Now, in the caring, sharing Nineties, owning an indulgent, expensive sports car would suggest poor taste. Add to that a major assault on the marketplace by cheaper Far Eastern clones, and a Porsche does not seem to make much sense. Unless, of course, you want a well-made, dynamic driver's car, at a price you never thought possible. Like a second-hand 944.

In 1975, Porsche introduced an entry-level model, the 924, to attract younger buyers. The project had originally been designed for Audi, and although the 924 was successful, it used a lot of Volkswagen-Audi group components and was never really accepted by enthusiasts as a Porsche. But the 944, launched in 1982, was. It looked like a 924 on steroids, with flared wheel-arches, but under the bonnet was a new 2.5-litre Porsche engine. The standard 'Lux' package in Britain included spoilers, alloy wheels, headlamp wash and electric windows.

These early 944s can be good value: you can get one for pounds 5,000, although pounds 6,000 to pounds 8,000 is more realistic. The range improved in 1985 with a higher specification and redesigned dashboard.

That same year, the turbo appeared, with uprated engine, suspension and more aggressive body-styling. This is a pleasure to drive but a pain if anything goes wrong, so a service history is a must. Prices range from pounds 10,000 to pounds 20,000. A safer and cheaper compromise may be the short-lived (1986-88) 16-valve 944. By 1988, the basic model had a new engine and anti-skid brakes as standard.

At about pounds 10,000, the 944s built between 1985 and 1989 are probably the best value of all. In January 1989, the 944 entered its final S2 incarnation. A new 16-valve 2,990cc engine was surrounded by a turbo-style body, which ran on the turbo's suspension and braking system. It was joined by the cabriolet, with standard electric hood, which can now be bought for pounds 20,000.

There is no big deal about buying a used 944. The car is virtually bullet-proof, has no vices and is faultlessly built. Make sure, though, that it has not had an accident, that it comes with a service history and that you buy from the right person at the right price.

Which is why I came to be in Henley, talking to Michael Ticehurst. Since I met him several years ago, I have regarded him as something of a Porsche guru. His enthusiasm for the marque is infectious, and his arguments for running a 944 are highly persuasive. 'How much does a year-old Escort cost, pounds 11,000? Well, why have one of those when you could buy one of these?' Mr Ticehurst waves his arm at a clutch of polished and perfect 944 Luxes.

There was not much to separate the cars: they all had similar 50,000 mileages, build dates of 1987/88 and price tags of pounds 10,995. It was just a question of whether red was better than black. The interiors were as new, and the engines clean enough to eat a picnic on. Mr Ticehurst's buying criteria are: a service history, no major accident damage and a sunroof (which makes the car more saleable in the future).

He wants to explode the myth that a Porsche is expensive to run. Certainly the insurance is no higher than many hot hatches, such as the Golf GTi, and a recommended specialist, rather than a Porsche main agent, is the place to get the annual 12,000-mile service at an affordable rate. If I had spent any more time there, I might well have bought one. I wondered if anyone else would be as convincing.

I soon found out at Chariots, a Porsche dealership in St Albans. I met Eamonn Dempsey, the sales manager, who asked: 'Haven't we spoken before?' We had, when I interviewed him for a previous Independent article, but although I denied it, I could tell that he had lingering doubts.

He showed me a nice 1989 cabriolet for pounds 21,950. I saw it in the workshop where it was awaiting the return of a throttle linkage which had been borrowed for another car. Mr Dempsey made sure the exchange was done on the spot so that we could go out for a drive.

t was a perfect drop-top day, but the first few miles were hood up, which showed how quiet and refined the cabriolet is. Once we had pulled over, engaged the handles to release the roof and pressed a button, the electric hood raised and packed itself away, and the car was in its element. Few other cabriolets feel so exhilarating yet safely assured when negotiating twisting country lanes.

The car had been demonstrated in the best possible manner. When I left, Mr Dempsey asked for a good write-up, if indeed I was a motoring writer. I think you got one, Eamonn.

Walking into the specialist Porsche Craft in Mill Hill, north London, I was struck by the fact that not only policemen but also car salesmen are looking younger. Martin may not have been shaving long, but he knew his Porsches. Among a clutch of 944s, a white turbo at pounds 10,995 looked the best buy. This 1987 car was fitted with a sunroof, air-conditioning and electric seats.

Looking closer, I could see that the sills had been painted and the chipped alloy wheels sprayed silver, so it had obviously led an eventful life. Just how eventful was revealed by the paperwork. The service book was up to date and recent bills for work looked in order . . . until I checked the mileage in October 1991, when the car was last sold: it stood at 32,000. In June 1992 it was 60,000. The new owner had done 28,000 miles in seven months.

'At least it proves that the mileage has not been wound back,' Martin beamed. Nothing wrong with that: long-distance motorway miles are better than a low reading racked up around town.

Last stop was Porsche's imposing Reading headquarters. AFN has just opened a new dealership there, so I thought it was worth a visit to see a 1989 turbo. Official franchises once had a reputation for regarding customers as a necessary evil; now that they are desperate for business, a new breed of approachable sales staff is on the forecourt.

In this instance, Loraine Guest's theatrical approach to selling worked wonders. The initial phone call was so enthusiastic, I just had to see the car. I was not disappointed.

Even better was Loraine's willingness to box around a deal. I asked, and got, pounds 1,000 off the asking price of pounds 20,995. Clearly, there has never been a better time to buy a 944.

(Photograph omitted)

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